On the horizon in this picture is a remote border crossing in the southern Sahara desert on the border of Algeria and Niger. It is January 1972 and Judy and I were on route driving from London to Durban, South Africa.
We became involved in a classic case of situational stress where we had formally left Algeria and had exit stamps in our passports thus nullifying our single entry transit visas which had taken several weeks to obtain in London many months before. Our Carnet de Passage which is a customs document that identifies a traveller’s motor vehicle had been stamped and discharged also, so our only route was south into Niger. We could not return to Algeria.
A 100 metre journey through ‘no man’s land’ and we are at the Niger border post with its one man ‘General’ dressed in his military uniform. He was definitely, in command. He controlled immigration and customs and only non- Africans were required to complete an entry form, have you visa checked, passport stamped and your Carnet de Passage stamped.
The ‘General’ was sitting on a chair under a tree very similar to the tree in the photo above. A group of locals were sitting at his feet as he entertained them with his stories spoken in the local tribal language. The ‘General’ also spoke French.
As we alighted from our Landrover we were beckoned to have an audience with the ‘General’. The big man welcomed us from his chair after finishing telling a story to the crowd. He sent his assistant off to his near-by mud hut with its thatched roof to bring the Entry Forms for us to complete to enter the country.
The forms were in French and fortunately Judy’s school girl French enabled us to complete our forms easily. We handed over our passports and Carnet de Passage for stamping so we could move on south bound on our way to Nigeria.
Alas, the ‘General’ was most unhappy about how we had completed our Immigration and Customs entry forms. He eventually gave us a second set to complete many hours later. The problem was that the way we had completed the first set of documents was 100% correct. Once again we repeated the process. This time the ‘General’ was starting to show his disgust at our very poor behaviour.
The stress of the situation was mounting and the day was coming to an end. I had an idea that if we could see what others who had passed through this remote border before us had written, this may give us a guide. Market research may be the key to create the breakthrough we needed.
Judy asked the ‘General’ could I go with his assistant to his hut and view previous completed documents that he had approved. He agreed our passports, visas and Carnet were all in order, it was only the entry document that was the problem.
On entering the hut his assistant showed me a tied wooden tray that had about a 4cm stack of Entry documents stored in it dating back over 10 years.
The form on the top was completed in the following manner…
Name: Hans Wenzel
Address: 36 Ulrich Strasse, Zurich, Switzerland.
Occupation: Structural Engineer
And the list of questions went on.
Now here’s the ‘stress buster’, form #2 was completed with exactly the same information, as was form #3, #4 and every other document in that pile.
It then became obvious that the ‘General’ could not read. I asked his assistant for two new forms and Judy and I both instantly became Hans Wenzel and all our information was the same as Hans, even our signature.
Back to the ‘General’ and he was so happy we had completed our forms correctly. He stamped us out and 9 hours later we were on our way.
What did we learn?
When faced with situational stress, step outside the box and do whatever market research is possible to see how others who have gone before you in handling the stressor(s). Maybe their action step or a similar one, can be what you need to solve your situational stress.